Andrew Marvell, influenced by the work of Ben Jonson and John Donne, was the last major poet with their qualities and habits of mind. All his great poems are metaphysical; that is, they present feeling intellectually and synthesize thought and passion. Marvell is always aware of the multiplicity and the unity of the universe and the tension he maintains between them constitutes the peculiar poise and balance of his verse. This metaphysical reconciliation of seeming opposites appears in the imagery of the poems, which with characteristic hyberbole combine many areas of ideas and experience.
“An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” generally acknowledged to be the finest poem of its kind in the language, exemplifies both his political feeling and the balance of thought in his verse. It is probably the last English poem in which the divine right of kings and a totally different type of rule could be presented simultaneously. Marvell celebrates Cromwell’s phenomenal rise to power “from his private gardens” to
. . . cast the Kingdoms oldInto another mould.
The king’s weakness rendered him helpless against the strength of Cromwell, and Marvell records the nobility of Charles I, who “adorned” the “tragic Scaffold.” The transition from the account of the king’s death to the time of Cromwell’s rule are terse and effective:
This was that memorable hour,Which first assured the forc’d Power.
Although he praises the efficiency and energy of Cromwell and acknowledges that he gave the government of the country to Parliament, Marvell sees also the necessity to continue fighting (after Ireland, Scotland remains to be subdued), and he concludes with a muted warning:
The same Arts that did gainA Pow’r, must it maintain.
The equipoise of the “Ode” is maintained through its combination of praise, reticence, and admonition: the recognition of the justice of Cromwell and of the tradition of kingship. Desire for the good of his country outweighs the poet’s feelings about specific acts. He both disliked the execution of the king and declared that Cromwell’s ability would be beneficial to England. This sustained tension between forces gives the “Ode” its power.
Marvell’s reputation rests on a very few poems. Some of the loveliest of these are the poems in which he employs nature images. One of his outstanding characteristics is his use of a simple theme to develop a deeply serious idea. Wit and brilliant imagery enhance the seriousness of his thought, so that an apparently slight subject will thus carry religious and philosophic implications and express the complex sensibility which is so much a part of the metaphysical poetic tradition. In “The Bermudas,” Marvell celebrates the joyous exile of a group of nonconformists who left England in the days of Anglican Bishop Laud. Those islands, “far kinder than our own,” sheltered and welcomed them and they were able freely to practice their religion. The poem glows with joy and pleasure at God’s grace manifested in the tropical luxuriance of the exiles’ environment:
He hangs in shades the Orange bright,Like golden Lamps in a green Night.
These images parallel their spiritual freedom.
Religious significance is implicit in “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Faun.” The huntsmen cannot cleanse themselves of guilt, even though the nymph forgives them; the faun’s whiteness and purity are matchless. The tone of gentle grief is perfectly maintained, however, and the precision of the images exactly conveys heartfelt emotion:
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